Despite the fact that it bears the name of a much-loved mid-'80s computer role-playing game, and despite the fact that it's the handiwork of one of that game's creators, InXile's reenvisioning of The Bard's Tale is not a nostalgia piece for fans of old PC RPGs. Borrowing Snowblind's Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance engine, as well as its overall structure, The Bard's Tale is a decent dungeon crawler that invests some energy into lampooning RPGs and high fantasy in general, but like a stand-up act about airline food or the line at the post office, its perspective isn't very interesting, and it lacks any real follow-through. If you're not looking for the sequel to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and can see your past a few problems, you'll find that The Bard's Tale is a fair action RPG.
The Bard is back, and he has a really bad attitude.
The game puts its best foot forward at the start, opening with a cinematic sequence in which The Bard, a traveling musician of flexible morality who has no interest in noble adventure or becoming a celebrated hero, tries to con his way into a free meal by using his lute to conjure up a rat in a rural pub, and then strolling in and offering to get rid of it in exchange for a bed and a hot meal. He ultimately ends up getting more than he bargained for when he's subsequently sent into the cellar to face a more serious vermin problem. From here The Bard is launched on a series of archetypal quests, ultimately getting locked into a quest the requires him to climb a series of ominous towers to fight wizards and rescue a fair princess, all the while making snide comments. The Bard comes off as kind of a jerk, and his nonstop sarcastic barbs ride the line between being funny and mean, often leaning toward plain old nastiness.
But, even though The Bard's Tale would like to mock the conventions of wizards, warriors, dungeons, and dragons, it ultimately ends up relying on the things it's supposedly trying to make fun of. Most of the people you meet, places you visit, and enemies you encounter wouldn't be at all out of place in a straightlaced high-fantasy RPG, making the somewhat half-hearted humor often feel like an afterthought. There are a few genuinely funny moments, though they're usually thanks to the talented voice-acting cast, rather than the writing. There are scores of missed opportunities for puns and silly names, and yet the game manages to find the time for a head-shakingly out-of-place reference to You Got Served.
The Bard's Tale finds its own jokes funnier than you likely will.
As a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, though, it's not so bad. It has much in common with the likes of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance or Champions of Norrath, which is unsurprising, considering that it's running on the same game engine as those titles. So, from an overhead perspective, you'll play as The Bard, battling wolves, boars, kunal trow, finfolk, evil druids, various forms of the undead, and a few different types of elementals as you make your way from one dungeonesque environment to another. This hacking and slashing makes up the bulk of the game, and for the most part, the action feels pretty familiar. You are presented with a few side quests in each town that you visit on your journey, but even if you aim to complete every side quest, unlock every unlockable, and see all the different endings, the game shouldn't take more than 16 hours of your time. There's no multiplayer component, so once you're done with The Bard's Tale, there's no real reason to come back.
The game does add a few of its own unique twists to the genre's gameplay, most of them ostensibly for the sake of streamlining the experience. For instance, The Bard has no inventory to speak of. Any items that you liberate from a fallen enemy or find in a treasure chest are either automatically converted into silver, or automatically equipped (in which case the gear it replaces is automatically converted into silver). The upside is that there's no worrying about your carrying capacity or whether you'll regret selling that morning star later down the road. The downside is that it basically takes all the fun out of hunting for treasure and buying new equipment. There are only a few shops where you can spend your silver in the game, and their inventory is extremely limited. The game also gives you an inordinate amount of money, so when you do happen upon a shop, you'll basically have enough money to buy whatever you please. The intent behind this simplification is admirable, but as it turns out, a good dungeon crawl actually benefits from a bit of micromanagement. As it is, it feels like there's something missing.